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Review: The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold March 8, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.

cover84054-mediumYes, it’s a Netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance pdf. Please note that comments are based on the advance version of the book, and some changes may have been made when the published version appears in June from Oxford University Press as part of their Inner Lives series.

I read an awful lot by and about Philip K Dick a few years back, but it’s been some time and my memory could be better. That makes it a bit harder to comment knowledgeably on this book. But first…

Science fiction writer Philip K Dick wrote many novels and short stories in which people were not what they seemed or in which reality itself could not be trusted. He was also known to have been at least verging on paranoid due to excessive amphetamine use, which helped him write so many books and short stories… and that was before the VALIS event that happened in 1974 and occupied much of the remaining years of his life. He was never certain whether he had been contacted by alien life, or by God, but he was sure something happened, and he wrote obsessively in his Exegesis, trying to work it all out; he also worked through some of his ideas in novels like VALIS and The Divine Invasion.

In the book at hand, Kyle Arnold takes a psychological and spiritual look at PKD’s experience. It’s a much more concise and easy read than the Exegesis, which has been published in part a couple of times and which I haven’t even tried to get through. (I’ve read some of the Selected Letters volumes dealing with the 1974 stuff, though.)

The book is mainly about Dick the person and his mental/spiritual state. There’s some material on his writing, but it’s not the point of the book. Arnold goes into some detail about Dick’s drug use, relationships, 1974, and other aspects of his internal life. The book could work as an introduction for people who find themselves more interested in the man than his books. I don’t doubt those people exist; like HP Lovecraft, he’s become well known as a strange kind of visionary as well as a writer.

For myself, though, I had a couple of issues. First, the writing is a bit shaky, lurching from very casual to more formal, as if shifting between blog post and thesis. It’s also a bit repetitive. There also appear to be some factual errors. Arnold mentions The Transmigration of Timothy Archer as one of the VALIS novels; it’s not. Which reminds me, I could have used more discussion of VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, and the unfinished The Owl in Daylight; Dick was working through his experiences in those novels as much as he was in the Exegesis.

Arnold’s Notes on Sources show most of the books I’d expect to see on the PKD side of things; the only omission is the Selected Letters books, but they aren’t easy to get.

Anyone who’s really interested in Philip K Dick has a few more in-depth sources they should investigate, but if you’re only casually interested, or if you’re interested in where psychology meets spirituality, this may be the book for you.



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